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Taylor Townsend, 17, earns confidence-boosting win over Karin Knapp

Taylor Townsend overcame a sloppy first set to advance. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Taylor Townsend

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- There's just something about the desert air that suits Taylor Townsend.

The 17-year-old American wild card beat No. 49 Karin Knapp 7-6 (1), 6-1 on Thursday in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open, her first WTA victory since defeating Lucie Hradecka here last year in her tour debut.

Townsend, ranked No. 337, split last season between the junior and senior tours. Her best result came at Wimbledon, where she made the girls' final and lost to junior No. 1 Belinda Bencic. After falling in the final round of qualifying at the U.S. Open, she finished the season on the ITF circuit, going 0-4.

But it's not necessarily about results for Townsend right now. She is dividing her training between Chicago and Washington, D.C., where she's coached by Zina Garrison, and says the biggest improvement in her game over the last year has been mental.

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"My coaches and I have been stressing being very mentally tough and learning the game, learning how things work," she said. "We've been watching a lot of matches and trying to understand how to play when pressure hits, how to play when you're up, how to play when you're down. Things like that."

That showed in her scratchy win over Knapp. The two combined for 53 unforced errors to just 12 winners in the first set and Townsend struggled to consolidate her three breaks of serve. Knapp, an Italian veteran who came within a few points of defeating Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, let Townsend off the hook in the tiebreaker as she continued to struggle with her rhythm off the ground. Ugly or not, a win is a win and it's a confidence booster for Townsend.

"I'm happy with my progress as far as where I've been going and what I've been doing," Townsend said. "I've been putting in a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours both on and off the court. So I've grown as both a person and a player."

Gone are the braces that were her signature look -- along with the ever-present bow in her hair -- and her poise in interviews belies her age. She still has a teenager's quick-fire speech, but there's a confidence in how she holds herself.

"I've had a year to adjust to being on the pro circuit, even though last year I played juniors," Townsend said. "But I think I belong, definitely. I wouldn't be here sitting in this room if I didn't think I belonged."

Then again, there's no hiding that underneath all that grown-up bravado is a wide-eyed teenager. Townsend is an unabashed Roger Federer worshiper and he just happened to walk through the interview room during her news conference. Townsend kept her cool and carried on with her answer, but finally caved when he left.

"I tried not to look!" she said, giggling. "I was like, Oh God, focus Taylor, focus. That's what I've been working on! Focus, please."